Casting Call in the Caribbean: Germans Moving Closer to Accepting Guantanamo Detainees

By Holger Stark

Part 2: The Candidates: Tahamuttan

Photo Gallery: Germany Changes Stance on Guantanamo Detainees Photos
AP

Last December, before launching their second attempt to make Germany part of its prisoner relocation plan, the Americans waited until both men had cleaned out their desks. Then, Daniel Fried, the US administration's special envoy for matters related to Guantanamo's closing, flew to Berlin and delivered a new, updated list of detainees who Germany could consider accepting. Washington's wish list included nine names, one of which was detainee #684, Mohammed Tahamuttan.

Tahamuttan is one of a group of individuals who more or less accidentally found themselves between the fronts of America's "war on terror." Tahamuttan comes from the Palestinian territories. He grew up on the West Bank and quickly had his fill of intifada, war and deplorable living conditions. According to US documents, in October 2001, he left his home and flew from Jordan to Pakistan. Tahamuttan yearned to be a pious man. Since the age of 14, he has been a fervent supporter of the Islamic missionary movement Tabligh-i-Jamaat. The group acquired a visa for him and arranged for him to stay in a religious school in Raiwind. There, Tahamuttan studied the Koran for four months before moving on to Lahore, then Quetta and, finally, Faisalabad.

In Pakistan, Tahamuttan came in contact with a few Arab students, but they turned out to be the wrong friends to have. One night, in March 2002, American soldiers kicked in the door and arrested the group. It was the same night that Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al-Qaida commander, was captured. According to the Americans at least, the house was a terrorist hideout for Zubaydah's men. Tahamuttan was flown directly to Guantanamo.

Mohammed Tahamuttan is now 30 years old and has been scheduled to be released for some time now. He could go home -- if he had a home to go to, that is, a country where he would be welcome. He doesn't want to return to the West Bank and, as a Palestinian, he doesn't have an official nationality. As of yet, no country has come forward to welcome him. But that still might now change with Germany.

The Candidates: Al Shurfa and al Ali

Although Fried won't officially comment on the current state of US-German negotiations, in Washington, the talks have been described as being particularly drawn-out. By now, 10 European countries have taken prisoners in, including France, Spain and Switzerland. The German government can also already cross a number of the nine names off the list Fried brought it Berlin last year. These former detainees have already found refuge elsewhere in Europe, with the two most recent ones settling in Albania. Among the remaining candidates, in addition to Tahamuttan, there is also Ohmed Ahmed Mahamoud al Shurfa, a 34-year-old Jordanian, whom the German delegation also met with last week.

Al Shurfa's checkered past illustrates just how difficult it is to make a risk prognosis. As a student in the Gaza Strip, he was reportedly influenced by Hamas. According to US military documents, in the summer of 2001, a Saudi sheik allegedly turned him on to jihad, urged him to get involved in the holy war, gave him 2,000 Saudi riyals (€397, $533) and sent him to Afghanistan.

According to these documents, al Shurfa traveled first to Kandahar and then to Khost before finally ending up at Camp Faruk, a training site for primarily foreign-born al-Qaida recruits. Al-Shufra makes pains to point out that he only talked about waging jihad -- but never really did so. Likewise, he told his interrogators that he didn't complete his training because he quarreled with his instructors. He does admit, however, that he "trained with a Kalashnikov." To this day, it remains unclear how much of the information in these documents is true and how much is not.

Then, there is a Mahmud Salem al Ali, 35, a Syrian who was allegedly also on his way to Camp Faruk. Either way, he never got there. Al Ali got sick, checked himself into a hospital in Kabul and was captured when the US Army marched into town.

Al Ali is another candidate for Germany. His file is thin -- and the few details the Americans have collected about him seem like rumors more than anything fact-based. He reportedly traveled to Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 after allegedly purchasing pro-jihad videos at a bazaar in Kuwait. Witnesses maintain that they once saw him dressed in Taliban clothing and holding a Kalashnikov. When Kabul fell, he allegedly tried to flee in a taxi and was reportedly robbed before being arrested, temporarily detained at the US military base in Bagram and flown to Guantanamo, where the German delegation interviewed him last week.

Worries at Home

When the government officials return to Germany, they will compile a report for de Maizière. But a positive evaluation in the report will not guarantee that a candidate will be welcomed in German. In the end, the decision is a political one that the German government will have to make.

In contrast to the stance of the grand coalition -- which saw then-Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) backing the acceptance of former prisoners as vehemently as Schäuble opposed it -- hardly any wrangling is expected within the current government. For its part, the FDP had already made its stance clear before the September elections. Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, for example, said that Germany needs to "send a political signal," adding that doing so could "show a willingness to bear the consequences of Guantanamo and its closing."

In the new government, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger holds the position of justice minister, and her ministry is open-minded about the government's bringing former prisoners to Germany. Likewise, party leader and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has already signaled his agreement in government circles, and the Foreign Ministry will most likely back the Interior Ministry's decision. The diplomats mainly had concerns about accepting two Uighur candidates because it could sour relations with the Chinese government.

The biggest hurdles de Maizière will have to overcome can be found within his own party and the interior ministries of the German states, which he will have to call on to find homes for the former inmates. Hans-Peter Uhl, for example, the conservatives' spokesman for domestic security issues, continues to demand that the Americans furnish risk prognoses for each individual detainee as well as "an explanation in each individual case for why they themselves are not taking the prisoners in." And Uhl predicts that, in the end, Germany will "probably accept no one."

The interior ministers in the individual German states are also warning against being overly willing to accept former detainees. In arguing, they point Pentagon statistics indicating that, so far, over 10 percent of the prisoners released from Guantanamo have joined or re-joined al-Qaida. State politicians also see the prospective new inhabitants as a security problem that will tax the resources of the law-enforcement and security apparatus.

While the politicians have the photos of people in orange-colored jumpsuits in mind, it just might be that their worries are exaggerated. In fact, the inmates probably have very different, more practical problems on their minds. Mahmud Salem al Ali, for example, said he would like to find a new wife. And Ahmed al Shurfa went on record as saying that the first thing he would need is psychological help.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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